• Regular
  • Medium
  • Large
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn
  • Print

Fantasy's Dose of Reality

Everyone has that guy in their fantasy league.

His current team is vying for first place. He picks up the week's hottest rookie off the waiver wire at 3 a.m. while the rest of the owners sleep or stumble home from bars. He boasts of having won six fantasy titles in the last four years. He knows so much less about baseball than you do, yet he continues to beat you.

For years, baseball fans equipped with a deep knowledge of the sport have been handcuffed by the standard 10-category fantasy scoring system, which focuses exclusively on hitting and pitching. Die-hards would say it puts too much weight on things like saves and stolen bases.

WSJ's fantasy sports expert Nando Di Fino discusses an alternative to the straight Rotisserie game that can reward players who have a deeper knowledge of the game. WSJ's Beckey Bright reports.

David Barton realized this in the mid-1980s, when he bemoaned the fact that Vince Coleman was the best player in Rotisserie league baseball but far from the best in real life. He was upset enough to call his brother Jeff, one of the few bartenders in California with a degree in physics from California-Berkeley. Together, they cooked up a remedy.

In 1987, the brothers placed a two-inch ad in the Sporting News and promptly piqued the interest of about 300 people curious to see if their simulation could more closely mirror how baseball is actually played. The game, called Scoresheet, took fantasy to a new level. Defensive ratings, lineup shuffling, pitcher match-ups and platoon possibilities all were part of the Bartons' game. But unlike Strat-O-Matic, which uses data from years past, Scoresheet took statistics from games played in the current season.

Every Monday, the previous week's statistics were fed into a computer program designed by David Barton, who holds math and programming degrees from MIT. Results came pouring out of the printers in a matter of minutes. The brothers would tweak some hiccups in the scoring ("Sometimes a pitcher who had an exceptionally good week would have minus-one walks," Jeff Barton says) and mail or fax results to the owners. But the results weren't just home run leaders or point accumulations.

Slick-fielding players like Toronto shortstop Aaron Hill become much more valuable in Scoresheet. ENLARGE
Slick-fielding players like Toronto shortstop Aaron Hill become much more valuable in Scoresheet. Associated Press

As opposed to Rotisserie baseball, Scoresheet would mail owners full box scores for six or seven games that their team had played against others in the league. Starters were pulled for relievers at a time pre-determined by the owner. Lefty pitching specialists were brought in to face left-handed sluggers. Light-hitting shortstops were told which inning they could lay down their first bunt. If your pitcher had a bad week in real baseball, chances were he wouldn't make it out of the fourth inning in Scoresheet baseball.

"All the things you knew about Rotisserie, you'd have to throw right out the window," Jeff Barton says.

They had created a more cerebral diversion than anything that had existed before, combining the deep knowledge required of simulation games with the X-factors of real-time Rotisserie scoring.

"In the average Scoresheet league the baseball knowledge is much, much higher than you'll see in normal fantasy leagues," says John R. Mayne, a deputy district attorney in Modesto, Calif., and a dedicated Scoresheet competitor. "In the elite leagues, it's very hard to stay ahead of the curve."

But the game is immensely entertaining and gratifying. It rewards the fantasy player who knows a thing or two about on-base percentage, lineup-shuffling, and middle relief.

"We're excited that we just pulled off a trade for [obscure relievers] Kyle McClellan and Hong-Chih Kuo," says Slate's Josh Levin, who has participated in a celebrity charity Scoresheet league run by Baseball Prospectus for two years. "You have to familiarize yourself with a greater number of major-league players, which is fun and a little maddening."

Yet for as long as the Bartons have been running their business -- this is their 22nd year of operation -- Scoresheet is still an underground phenomenon. Its Yahoo group has fewer than 1,000 members. The brothers estimate they only host around 500 leagues, and its gameplay remains somewhat of an enigma even to those who have been playing for a few seasons.

Jeff Barton, one of the co-creators of Scoresheet. ENLARGE
Jeff Barton, one of the co-creators of Scoresheet. Courtesy of Jeff Barton

With a cadre of numbers that the casual fantasy gamer may not be familiar with -- catchers, for instance, have two sets of defensive numbers to consider, while middle infielders have just one -- Scoresheet is not the kind of game your Great Aunt Mildred can start playing on a whim.

"In fantasy, you don't give defense a second thought. You're not putting a team out there, you're just concerned with getting points," explains Mike Cieslinski, founder of the DYNASTY League Baseball simulator, which plays with rules close to that of Scoresheet's, but using previous seasons' statistics.

Mr. Cielinski, who created Pursue the Pennant, the board game precursor to his current venture, used to play it with members of the Baltimore Orioles as a public relations intern with them in 1985. He says Dennis Martinez, then an Orioles pitcher, became hooked on the game, and his Web site shows him playing with Hall of Famer Paul Molitor.

A game like this ought to be catnip for baseball junkies, much less actual players. So why aren't more fantasy gamers hooked?

For starters, fantasy leagues that are run on the bigger sites, like CBS, Yahoo, and ESPN, offer free games. Scoresheet charges $79 per team to help pay for its staff of four. Its more extensive rules may also take time to adjust to. And even though it has been around for almost a quarter of a century, very few people know it exists. I had no idea until I was asked to join the Baseball Prospectus league in 2006, and it's become an obsession that many other participants share.

Now 52, Jeff Barton muses that if he'd known in 1987 that 15 million people would play fantasy sports, he would have taken out loans from everyone he knew and pushed harder to advertise his game. Although he doesn't think Scoresheet would have overtaken Rotisserie baseball, he does believe it might have been a closer fight.

"Still," he says, "this has been our life work."

For now, the former bartender with the physics degree is content to sit in his office near Lake Tahoe and fire up the four computers every Monday. He still tweaks the occasional glitch and emails box scores based on last week's stats to thousands of players across the country.

And members of that fantasy subculture know that when they win a Scoresheet league, they've truly earned it.

Write to Nando Di Fino at nandodifino@yahoo.com

  • Regular
  • Medium
  • Large
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn
  • Print
Show More Archives

Popular on WSJ

Editors’ Picks